This year, black Santas are adding a new cultural identity to the holiday tradition, thanks to the efforts of a Tennessee school teacher and a New York journalist. And in Fredrick, Maryland, two history buffs celebrate Christmas with a Civil War slant, making Kris Kringle chose sides between the Union and Confederacy.
Nashville teacher Scottie Caldwell never really noticed there were no black Santa Clauses at the mall until one of her sixth-grade students asked her about it.
Caldwell didn't have a good answer, but she found a solution. She persuaded some black men at her church in Chattanooga, Tenn., to dress up as Santa and pose with children for Christmas photos.
For children who didn't relate to a white Santa, the response to a black Santa has been satisfying, she said.
"A lot of my children are from the inner city and you wouldn't think that some of them would want to sit in Santa's lap," Caldwell said. "But they did, and liked it."
That need for a cultural link to Christmas is creating a growing niche market for holiday themes and decorations depicting black Santas and Nativity scenes, said Terrie Williams, who owns a New York-based public relations and marketing company.
"It's important to celebrate our images. For those who celebrate the traditional kind of Christmas, you want to be able to see yourself," Williams said.
Karla Winfrey, a former Nashville television reporter who is Oprah Winfrey's cousin, remembered her disappointment when she couldn't find a holiday tie featuring a black Santa.
"I wanted one that looked liked the friendly, brown face that came to my house when I was a child," Winfrey said.
Winfrey, now a free-lance journalist living in New York, decided to design Christmas ties herself and last month launched an Internet company called Colored Christmas that sells ties featuring a black Santa and black angels.
Winfrey will expand her offerings based on the responses she's gotten from people of other races.
"They say, 'Oh, that's a black Santa. I've never seen anything like that before,"' she said.
Edward Lee, 52, is accustomed to that reaction. He is one of the few black Santas working in the Atlanta area.
"People passing by usually do a double take," said Lee, who has been working at the South DeKalb Mall for seven years.
What Lee loves most about the job is how the children's "faces light up when they see Santa and it's somebody their own color and they can relate to ... I get a lot of customers who come back year after year."
All races need to have their own Santa, Lee said, "so a person can feel proud in their own race, because it starts a a child."
Paul Rasmussen, president and CEO of Santa Plus in St. Louis, which provides Santas for malls nationwide, agrees there's a need for more diversity.
The problem, he said, is finding black men to play Santa who have a natural beard. Lee is the only one the company has.
In Fredrick, Maryland, some children are surprised to see two Santa Clauses one wearing stars and stripes, and another in a Confederate uniform. History buffs celebrate the Civil War, Christmas-style, in the border state where the North-South conflict seems as eternal as Old Saint Nick.
Robert W. Parker, proud descendant of a Confederate veteran, created his rebel Santa suit after seeing another Civil War history enthusiast, Kevin Rawlings, in a costume with a distinctively Union cut several years ago.
|Richard Lee Stambaugh, 2, is entertained by Kevin Rawlings in Hagerstown, Md. Rawlings portrays Santa Claus as he was depicted by Thomas Nast during Civil War times.|
Parker stitched together a bright red version of a Confederate lieutenant general's coat and started spreading a Southern version of the Santa Claus legend.
"We were brothers separated at birth. He was taken north and I was taken south and that's how we can do the whole world in one night," Parker, of Brandywine, Md., tells curious children.
His outfit hardly needs explaining, though, in an area where battle re-enactments are as routine as county fairs and passions still simmer over Maryland's deep wartime division.
A slave state situated below the Mason-Dixon line, Maryland stayed in the Union with some reluctance as federal troops occupied Annapolis, the state capital. Had Maryland seceded, Washington would have been surrounded by Confederate territory.
Given that history, splitting up Santa Claus seems only natural to some.
"It's kind of appropriate for this area. You couldn't get much closer to an area where the division actually took place," Michael Graves said as his daughters Michelle, 11, and Megan, 5, visited with Parker at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.
Rawlings has stationed himself at the museum each of his 11 years as a Civil War Santa. He and Parker, who both sport chest-length beards, occasionally bump into each other during the Christmas season.
"We're friendly. We haven't decided to go into the cage of death and duel," said Rawlings, 44, a Sharpsburg resident and author of a Civil War history book, We Were Marching on Christmas Day.
He quibbles with Parker's ostume, though. Rawlings modeled his own star-spangled blue coat and red-and-white striped pants after a Santa Claus drawn by Thomas Nast for the Christmas 1862 issue of Harper's Weekly magazine. He contends Parker's outfit lacks authenticity.
"I have done my homework and there is no documentation for a Confederate Santa Claus," he said.
The Nast illustration shows Santa dangling a strangled puppet of Confederate President Jefferson Davis before Union troops. It is a clearly partisan image; Parker said Rawlings' outfit is, too.
"In Richmond in 1860, he would not have been very popular," said Parker, 54, a safety inspector.
He bases his schtick in part on a Louise Clack children's story, General Lee and Santa Claus, published in 1867, two years after the war. The story, aimed at appeasing deprived Southern children, has Lee ordering Santa to sell Christmas toys and buy medical supplies and food for wounded Confederate soldiers.
"Santa is Santa, and Santa loves children, so that part is not political, per se," Parker said, "but the way he was drawn by Thomas Nast, giving toys and food to the Union troops, there were two different Santas."
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